Exclusive Interviews: Roland Emmerich & John Orloff on Anonymous


At one point or another in your life, you’re likely to have read or seen a Shakespeare play, and been advised by whomever introduced you to the bard, whether it’s your teachers or parents, that Shakespeare was one of the greatest playwrights that has ever lived. Now, there are few that would question that the plays said to be written by Shakespeare remain the finest ever performed on stage, making him one of the most influential playwrights, but for hundreds of years, there’s been many questions about whether the man known as “William Shakespeare” really was the same person who wrote those plays.

That is the idea behind Roland Emmerich’s new movie Anonymous, which stars Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who has long been believed to be the logical author, being that he regularly wrote plays that were performed for Queen Elizabeth I, played in the movie by Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson in the flashbacks. The period drama explores the relationship between them as well as how De Vere reached out to a playwright named Ben Jonson and an actor at his company named William Shakespeare to perform his plays while keeping the identity of their author a secret.

Last week, ComingSoon.net sat down with the two filmmakers behind the movie to talk about different aspects of making the film, Emmerich focusing on the technical side of making the movie and screenwriter John Orloff talking about some of the research that went into trying to make the film historically accurate.

We’ll begin with Roland Emmerich, who we already spoke to a bit in Toronto a few months back, but we wanted to get a bit further into the nitty-gritty of making a film that’s such a departure from his prior work.

ComingSoon.net: One thing I never learned when we spoke in Toronto was how you originally found this script. I know you had been developing it for years but how did you and John first hook up?
Roland Emmerich:
Just as a reading sample, because I was looking for a writer for “The Day After Tomorrow,” and my agency sent certain writers over, and one of them was John Orloff, and my first talk with him, I said, “What else have you written?” then he said, “Oh, I started my career with this script called ‘Soul of the Age.'” I said, “What is that?” “It’s just about William Shakespeare didn’t write his plays.” I said, “What? Can you send it to me?” He sent it to me and I fell in love, it was like love at first sight.

CS: This must have been at least ten years ago.
Yeah, this was like ten years ago. Then I realized that it was with another company, so I first had to wrestle it out from their hands–took me a year–and then I kind of bought it with my own money and started developing with John together. Poor John had to write 20 versions of this thing.

CS: Twenty versions of a script in Hollywood is not a lot.
No, but with the same writer, it’s unusual. I would say that you’re right, but I don’t like to work with different writers. I always stick with my main writer who created the thing and he has to see it through to the end. I’m a writer myself. I know how hard it is to have somebody rewrite you.

CS: Were you already a Shakespeare fan?
I became one. I grew up in Germany so I didn’t learn anything about Shakespeare, only learned that he was a great English writer and that he had to read in English like “Romeo and Juliet,” which I didn’t understand, to be honest. Then when I was given this script, I was just super-surprised that such a famous name like “William Shakespeare” is contested and then I read about it and did my own little research and when I found out war was being fought over it, I got really interested and thought, “I have to make this film.” Now over the last ten years, I’m studying up on the subject and I’m now even more than then convinced that I’m right.

CS: While developing the movie, did you deliberately wait until you finished three other movies before getting to it?
No, no, it was always constantly parallel, because whatever you do, even when you make a movie, you still have weekends and read a lot, and all these years, I was constantly reading about this subject matter. I read different things about theater in that time. I read about history, about this and that, about the wars. The interesting thing is that in historical movies, you have to so simplify it, to make it dramatically work, so that people aren’t totally over their heads. Trust me. The whole Essex Rebellion is so complicated, and he was such a complicated man, you can never ever put this on film. Or you have to make a whole movie about Essex. But if you have it as a sideshow, you have to simplify it, and you have to simplify it in the right form. It has to work overall in your story.

CS: Do you generally approach a movie like this very differently from the movies you’ve done since “The Patriot” with worlds being destroyed?
You do much more reading. You go much more to museums and you try to do as much research as you can, and that’s the difference.

CS: The movie is pretty complex because you have two or three storylines and two different periods. All of your movies have had multiple characters and different stories…
But not flashbacks (chuckles)

CS: What’s interesting to me is that you’ve always had character drama as part of your movies but they always get overshadowed by the explosions and visuals. This one you still have stunning visuals, but it’s about recreating this time period and these very real places.
Very important for me, because I always knew that I wanted to make a movie where the city of London is the character and really the main character for me, because this is the setting where all this happens, and there’s constantly these God views down on this world and it was very important for me, and I had to wait for a long time until the computer could do that. Otherwise, you would have had to do it with models, and it wouldn’t look so good.

CS: I’m amazed by the artists you worked with, because you have the artists who created this setting and then you found computer animators who could make it real.
It’s a very long process. You know what they do? They photograph everything. They go to the Tower of London and photograph thousands of photos of this building and then they texture map it on the digital model, and then on top of that, they have to eventually alter the Tower of London to how it really is. They go from old plans and when they have a meadow, they photograph meadows. It’s really stitched together by thousands and thousands of photos. I always found it amazing that because this world is not existing anymore, but there’s everywhere little corners, a house, maybe only one side of the house because the other was altered. It’s pretty much detective work, and then that applies to all of the shots and they light it.

CS: Were they able to get the original plans for the Globe Theater.
(nods head) This is all very well research, this film, and we wanted to do it like that, because we said, “Look, our movie is so provocative, some people will so give a sh*t, at least get it right for them, but nobody appreciates it really. But we really had this idea that we wanted to make the best and most accurate looking movie about the Elizabethan age, and nothing in our film is inaccurate. The only thing that is only a little bit… we on purpose did a little bit more was that they didn’t have as much theater decoration in that time.

CS: I was curious about the staging of Shakespeare’s plays in the movie. We only see a few moments from most of them, but I was curious how you researched how they staged the plays back them. Was that from reading?
No, no. I had a theater director do all the stagework. She is very knowledgeable, this woman, Tamara Harvey, she worked under Mark Wyland at the Globe Theater for years and years and she specializes in these kinds of plays.

CS: One of De Vere’s more interesting comments is when he says that “all art is political.”
All art is political or otherwise, it would be purely decoration.

CS: It’s a line that almost defines some of your work in a ways, so is that something you’ve always believed in?
I totally believe in that, because even when you make escapist films, they’re political, because you keep people away from thinking.

CS: “The Day After Tomorrow” is a great example of this because you were dealing with the after-effects of global warming before Al Gore made people more aware with his documentary.
I know. On the day of the premiere in New York, we went to this church where Al Gore was speaking and giving his “Inconvenient Truth” speech, and I was with two people who then became the producers of his film.

CS: What would you like people to get out of this movie? There are obviously different ways you can watch it: you can watch it as a Shakespeare fan or someone who just wants to be entertained or someone interested in European history and the politics of that time
Well, that’s kind of what I like about this film. It has different aspects and I think it’s interesting when you make movies which are not only… also, it’s a movie for adults. Adult entertainment. Even if it’s PG-13, it’s adult entertainment, where people of all ages can go there and that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t just want it to cater to the four-quadrant filmmaking. I do this most of the time and that’s fine, and I’m content, but once in a while, I want to do something which is a little bit more challenging.

CS: Is this the start of possibly doing more historical stuff?
Well, more interesting stuff at least once in a while, so this was the first, hopefully of many of these films, but my next film is again… but even that movie is different in a way. I just want to vary what I do.

(You can read what Emmerich said about that next movie Singularity here.)

CS: It sounds like you always have things in development.
Yeah, as a director you have to or otherwise, one day you wake up and there’s no movie that you can do. Then you rely on studios sending you scripts and stuff, and that’s most of the time stuff you don’t want to do.

Next, we have an interview with screenwriter John Orloff, who has literally spent thirteen years of his life doing the research, going behind the scenes of the times in which William Shakespeare lived in order to try to figure out the real story behind the authorship of his plays. Orloff previously wrote a couple of episodes of HBO’s “Band of Brothers” as well as Zack Snyder’s animated Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.

The day we spoke to Orloff, he was on fire (proverbially) due to a negative article in the New York Times by Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, once again debunking the movie and anyone who would suggest that anyone but William Shakespeare might have written the plays.

ComingSoon.net: I’ve talked to Roland a couple times, and I know there’s been a long development process, so this was something you originally wrote on spec?
John Orloff:
Yeah, I’ll tell you the story. 20 years ago I became interested in the Shakespeare authorship issue fresh out of college. I saw a PBS “Frontline” about it. I was like 23, 24, something like that. I was like, “Oh man, that would make a great movie.” I’d studied film at UCLA. I thought, “Wow, that’s just a great, cool movie. There’s so much going on. There’s so many interesting characters. It’s such an interesting time, but I don’t have the chutzpah to write this.” Then like five years later, I met my wife who was at the time, an executive at HBO. She would bring home these scripts, I would read them, and they kinda sucked. Not the ones they were making, just the writing samples, right? I was like, “Wow, this person has an agent? You were thinking of hiring this person?” So I thought, “You know, maybe I should really try to write that Shakespeare script.” So this was 1998.

CS: It’s kind of shocking that in the time since then, no one has…
I know, made this movie. I know. I know. That was one of my wife’s points. My wife was like, “Dude, if you don’t write this movie, somebody else will.” So I said, “You’re right. I gotta write it, otherwise I’ll kick myself in the butt for the rest of my life.” So I wrote the script. It took me two years because it was a part-time gig because I had a day job and a lotta research and a lot of fear, a lot of writer’s block. I finished it in 1998 about two months before “Shakespeare in Love” came out… And I was done. It was done. Nobody wanted to make it. It just became a writing sample, but it got me “Band of Brothers.” So my career started to happen, but nobody wanted to make it. Anytime I’d go into a meeting, they’d say, “Oh, we love ‘Soul of the Age’ but it’ll never get made.”

CS: That’s wild because you would think that with the success of “Shakespeare in Love,” everybody would be trying to make this.
I guess the world can have only one Shakespeare movie in a generation or something. I don’t know, but no, I guess when it comes to Shakespeare, what’s the sincerest form of flattery, copying? So yeah, they didn’t want to make it until I met Roland.

CS: Of course, this must’ve been after “Independence Day,” so it must’ve been kind of a strange phone call.
It was. We actually first met because he wanted to talk about “The Day After Tomorrow” with me. We were in the room, and he was telling me about it and that conversation just sort of dovetailed into what else have I written. I started to talk about this movie, kind of thought in the back of my head, “I got nothing to lose. Maybe he’ll really be into it.” So I pitched him my 16th century Elizabethan melodrama because when you think 16th century Elizabethan melodrama…

CS: You think Roland Emmerich.
You think Roland Emmerich!

CS: Was Ben Jonson always the focal point?
What happened was, it was really hard how to figure out how to write this movie. As I was doing my research, I noticed that Ben Jonson as a historical figure had a really complicated relationship with Shakespeare. He either hated him or loved him. It was both because he has poems where he hates him, and he has poems where he loves him. There was a moment where I thought as I was trying to get my in to the story, what if he’s talking about two different people? What if he knows? That started the movie.

CS: It’s kind of odd that poets would be writing about other poets. Was that common?
Yeah, it was a common thing at the time.

CS: So it’s kind of like the blogger wars now?
Exactly, it was totally like the blogger wars, yeah, completely. They loved each other. They hated each other. They were jealous of each other. Yeah, yeah, they kept track of each other all the time.

CS: I know Roland brought in the whole Queen Elizabeth storyline.
Yeah, the whole political stuff came through Roland because Oxfordian scholarship is kind of a new thing. He was only sort of put forth as a possible contender to the plays in the 1920s, then there was only one or two books written between 1922 and 1987, ’88 when this man, Charlton Ogburn wrote this 900-page book called “The Mysterious William Shakespeare.” That started a whole new generation of people going, “Wait a minute. Let me think about this. Let me read a little bit more about this.” The more people read about it, often, the more they become convinced. In the time between when I wrote the first draft of “Soul of the Age” to meeting Roland was about five years. In that five years, new books had been written that I hadn’t read because why would I read it? I’m doing other things. I’m doing “Band of Brothers,” I’m doing whatever I’m doing. Roland read those new books and Roland said, “Yeah, do you know this theory?” I had not heard of it, but as soon as he pitched it to me I said, “Wow, I don’t know if I believe it or not, but it’s great drama. It makes our movie a Shakespearean play.”

CS: Was the connection between De Vere and Elizabeth, was that partially what was introduced?
Yeah, that they had a love affair and a love child basically. That’s sort of a new theory. One of the problems with Shakespeare as the author is the Earl of Southampton is the dedicatee to two of the poems, and nobody knows why. It seems odd. They think in the sonnets that Southampton might be the “fair youth” that Shakespeare expressed his love to. So a lot of people have come up with the theory that Shakespeare was gay, because he talks about how much he loves this fair youth. The alternative theory is that Southampton was his child, and it’s a father talking to a son.

CS: I forgot to ask Roland earlier, but I wanted to ask about the framing sequence with Derek Jacobi and where that came from.
That was Roland’s idea as well. It wasn’t in the theater originally. We just needed a prologue to say to the audience, “Hey, there’s some real issues here. It’s not just a movie, but it is just a movie.” There is a Shakespeare authorship issue or question, and we wanted to remind the audience that there is a hole in Shakespeare’s biography that not a single piece of paper has ever been found written by William Shakespeare, not a letter, not a document, not a manuscript, not a poem, not anything. We wanted to remind the audience of that or inform them because most people don’t know that. We wanted to let the audience know that Shakespeare never said he wrote a single word. Nobody in his family ever said he was a playwright. His daughter survived him. His son-in-law was a doctor and had a diary – never mentions his father the playwright in the diary.

CS: It’s interesting because at least in the movie, when he takes authorship of these plays, he essentially gives up acting.
Right, right, which happened. We actually only have his name as an actor on one play, a Ben Jonson play. He’s mentioned and paid as an actor once or twice. There’s a receipt for “William Shakespeare, two pounds,” or whatever it is–schillings–for a performance. But that’s it. It’s not like there’s this huge history of Shakespeare as an actor. There’s not. There’s just a few references to it.

CS: As we can tell from the recent New York Times piece, there are questions on both sides, and the thing about a movie like this is that there is a certain amount of artistic license in order to tell a more interesting story, and it raises questions about fact vs. fiction. How did that work into you and Roland developing movie?
People have been questioning the plays for hundreds of years; this is not a new idea that Roland and I are talking about. Mark Twain wrote a whole book about why Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. Sigmund Freud didn’t think Shakespeare wrote the plays. Henry James – this is a quote from Henry James, sort of the inventor of the modern novel, “I am haunted by the conviction that the divine Shakespeare is the biggest and most successful fraud ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting public.” This is not a new idea.

Well, I’ll give you a great example. At the climax of the movie, we show a play “Richard III” that incites the Essex Rebellion. Well, in historical fact, it wasn’t “Richard III,” it was a different play. It was “Richard II” is what started the Essex Rebellion. The problem with “Richard II” from a screenwriting standpoint is it’s a very complicated play and the metaphors that made that 16th Century audience go, “Alright, let’s start a rebellion because we’ve watched this play and it relates to Queen Elizabeth this way, and it relates to William Cecil that way and it relates to all these people this way,” I couldn’t explain that in two minutes. It would’ve taken me 20 pages to explain to the audience why “Richard II” would incite a mob to rebellion. “Richard III” is a hunchback in Shakespeare’s play–he wasn’t historically a hunchback, by the way–so was Robert Cecil, he’s a hunchback. All I have to do is show the audience two hunchbacks, and you can make the metaphor, so there we played with history.

Now Shakespeare plays with history all over the place. Those plays are not history; they are drama. We call them the histories. There are so many inaccuracies in Shakespeare’s (work) – people are dead when they’re alive. People are alive when they’re dead historically. There are characters in Shakespeare’s plays who shouldn’t be in them because they’ve been dead for 15 years. We’re just following the master.

CS: It was interesting because I literally just glommed over that article by James Shapiro, and it seems like he’s saying “Because there are historical inaccuracies in the movie, that means their theories are wrong.” He used very weird logic to try to prove disprove your theory by just saying, “Oh, it’s a movie.”
Right. Well, they won’t debate with us. Shapiro won’t meet with me, and he won’t talk about the movie with me.

CS: But you guys have already done a number of talks.
We’ve done some talks, but mostly Shakespearean scholars won’t even talk to us. I think it’s because they’re being challenged, and one of the things the movie is bringing to light is the fact that Shakespearean scholarship is actually no different than my movie in the sense that it’s all fiction. You know, we know almost nothing of Shakespeare. When you read that 800-page biography of William Shakespeare, you’re reading one page of facts and 799 pages of conjecture presented as fact.

CS: That’s probably the case with much of history from that time, because there’s no one alive to verify the information.
Sure, but it’s even more so in Shakespeare because we know nothing about the man, and that becomes a challenge if you’re going to write a biography on him. If you read very carefully, these biographies, you’ll see a lot of, “He must have done this. We assume he did that,” because they have to. The easiest example is just his schooling. When you read “Romeo and Juliet” in the seventh grade, you read those eight-page bios of Shakespeare, talking about how amazing it is that he’s this playwright with only a grammar school education. There’s no proof he went to grammar school. It’s a guess he went to grammar school, and it’s a guess based on the fact that whoever wrote these plays must’ve gone to school.

CS: One of the more interesting lines in the movie is when De Vere says, “All art is political.”
That’s my favorite line of the movie.

CS: Which is almost a definition of the movie because you write this screenplay 13 or 14 years ago and you’re now being dragged into this debate about the subject of the movie. I’m assuming you don’t want to be talking about Shakespeare for the rest of your life.
Well, but right now I love to talk about it. I’ve been talking about it for 20 years, and my poor friends have listened to me rant and rave about it for 20 years. You know, I love talking about it. All of Western civilization drama goes through Shakespeare. It might’ve started with the Greeks, but it goes through Shakespeare and Shakespeare is the modernization of it from the Greeks. What I do every day comes through the mind of William Shakespeare. I am just copying. I had written the St. Crispin’s Day speech into “Band of Brothers.” I had written the St. Crispin’s Day speech in “The Owls of Ga’Hoole.” I literally have. Yeah, so it all comes from Shakespeare.

CS: The actors in the movie who I’ve spoken to say it’s more about the words, and when it comes down to it, that’s the most important thing, and what you’re saying with this movie doesn’t take away from this amazing body of work.
Listen, we might be wrong. It’s not stupid to think William Shakespeare wrote the plays. It’s not unreasonable to think William Shakespeare wrote the plays. But, it’s not unreasonable to think he didn’t. That’s my point. Until a piece of paper comes out that is either written by William Shakespeare and says, “Oh, to be or not to be – William Shakespeare,” or, “To be or not to be – Edward De Vere.” We’re just not going to know. This is an unanswerable question with the facts we have in front of us.

CS: True, mainly because there was no video or cameras back then to take a picture of him actually writing something.
Right, exactly, but what you would have is letters. This is what’s interesting, if I may indulge you for a minute. The traditional theory is that Shakespeare went to London in the 1500s, and he spent part of his time in London and part of his time in Stratford for about 20 years. He had business in Stratford. We can track his business in Stratford. Every couple of years he’s either being sued or he owes back taxes. I mean, he was a presence in Stratford during his whole career. He was also a presence in London obviously. But you would think that if you’re in Stratford and you have a business in London you might send a letter saying, “How were last night’s receipts?” Or you might receive a letter saying, “Oh my God, we need a new f*cking play next week. What do you got?” Or, if he was in London you would think he would write a letter to his wife or to his children or to his business affairs in London. He was a businessman in Stratford. Well, not a single letter has ever been found to or from William Shakespeare. Okay? But then Stratfordians, people who think the man from Stratford (i.e. Shakespeare) wrote the plays, would say, “Oh well, we don’t have letters for anybody. It’s 400 years ago. They’re all lost to history.” Well, we have letters from these following Elizabethan playwrights (reading from his iPhone) – Jonson, Nash, Massinger, Spencer, Daniel, Peal, Chapman, Drummond, Lillie, Lodge, Decker, Kidd. We have letters from all of ’em.

CS: So Shakespeare is the only playwright who literally never wrote letters?
Marlowe. We don’t have letters from Marlowe either. Those are the only two.

CS: Do you have any other scripts from 15 or 20 years ago we might see getting made soon?
I do, I do. My passion project right now is a script I wrote 10 years ago about Julius Caesar’s rise to power. Yeah, I love it. I love it, love it, love it. I’m as obsessed with the life of Julius Caesar as I am with Shakespeare.

CS: Are you going to debunk Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” with this movie?
(Laughs) No, no, no, but I don’t go that late. The movie ends way before the events of Shakespeare’s play, actually. Shakespeare’s play is really only about the assassination, the very last days of Caesar’s life. My screenplay is about the early days of Caesar’s life.

CS: So what’s going on with that? Are you shopping it around?
Well, no. I mean, it’s an older script, and like “Soul of the Age” that turned into “Anonymous,” these things, you push them. I have a new director attached and we’re trying to see what happens with it.

CS: Do you generally get involved as a producer as well?
No, “Anonymous” was my first experience doing that, and that’s partially just Roland’s generosity, his collaborative nature, his desire to go down this road with somebody, I guess. It was a great, great journey. I was on set every day, and it was great to be there and to be part of the process of actually making the film, which obviously almost never happens for a writer.

CS: When you think of Roland, you really think of these big Hollywood epics, and many people who see a movie they don’t like will criticize it for having too many writers.
Right, right. He’s very not like that at all. I mean, I loved that about Roland. I’m the only person who ever touched this script, and I think he’s right, that there is a voice that emerges because of that. Roland’s other films – actually, they’re very political. They have something to say through the medium of popular moviemaking. They’re not just mindless exercises. I think he controls those scripts. Well, he co-writes a lot of those, I mean, most of those movies are co-written by Roland. There’s only a couple of movies he wasn’t the co-writer of, I think “The Patriot” and “Anonymous.” I think he’s the co-writer of all his other scripts.

Anonymous opens in select cities on Friday, October 28, then expands in November. You can watch our earlier video interviews with Emmerich and his cast here.